Farmers & Cooperatives


I’m just back from a whirlwind week-and-a-half buying trip to Bolivia and Peru. More on Peru later, this first installment is focused on Bolivia…

Latin America’s only landlocked coffee producer faces a lot of challenges that other producing countries just don’t have to deal with. The coffee producing region is separated from shipping ports by mountain passes reaching to nearly 16,000 feet. The Andes are not small mountains. Logic might warn you against producing coffee here, or more personally as it relates to me, traveling to a place where your plane lands at 13,000 above sea level, only to wake up to a ride on the “Camino de Muerte” (The Death Road), a highway clinging to the side of cliffs with vertical drops reaching a mile or more at some points.

But logic, in all of its clear-headed and dispassionate reason doesn’t know how good Bolivian coffee can be. The deep sugary sweetness, complex and elegant acidity, and subtle citric characteristics are more than worth a little adventure. For those of you who know and love our Musasa, Rwanda single origin, the characteristics of that cup are the best comparison I can make. And so it was that I found myself wondering if I’d bought enough ibuprofin to-go at the Miami airport. How bad could the altitude induced headache be? And more than a little excited to taste some great coffee and meet the folks behind Union Pro-Agro and ASOCAFE, two of Bolivia’s most promising  cooperatives.

A little backstory/context…Bolivia has shone in the past few years via the Cup of Excellence, a national competition that winnows the best lots from the year’s harvest, and offers them on an international auction. Small lots of truly exceptional quality emerged from the mass of good, but not great coffee. The disparate nature of the Bolivian industry— thousands and thousands of small scale farmers in near-ideal growing conditions—availed a whole new set of opportunities for differentiated production. Buyers have swarmed, and farmers got bit by the craft bug. Good things. At the same time, there’s a shared sense that Bolivian coffee could be a lot better than it usually is. Small lots came out tasting way better than big lots. The Cup of Excellence is a kind of proof of the potential here. But finding a needle in the haystack is one thing, finding a reliable supply of great coffee is another. The challenge is how to find exceptional coffee, not just in tiny micro-lots, but from farm, next to farm, next to farm, within these emerging cooperatives.

On my first day, before leaving for a six hour (sometimes harrowing) drive to Caranavi I had a chance to cup through dozens of samples from Union Pro Agro, and ASOCAFE. Thanks to the hard work Al Liu at Atlas Coffee Importers (based in Seattle) I have the dream set-up: a contract for 100 bags of the best coffee we can find, to be selected bag-by-bag, and combined into a lot comprised of only the finest coffees. It turns out that this is exactly the kind of contract we want and need. 3/4 of the coffee we cupped did not live up to its potential. Hints of greatness were muted by defects, the most prevalent being poor post-harvest processing, especially the puckering dryness associated with overfermentation. But tucked amidst these disappointments were some gems. And one by one, the good emerged from the bad, and the truly exciting rose to the top. Cupping at this level requires a lot of patience, and while you hope that a great coffee might represent a lot of 10 or 20 bags, its more common that it represents a lot of 3 or 4 bags—the day’s production from a single small farm. Slow as it may be, each discovery is a step in the right direction and a step closer to finding the coffee we need, and the farmers who grow it.

I spent the next two days in the mountains of northeasten Bolivia, walking through farm after farm with farmers, inspecting central washing stations with clean cement fermentation tanks and washing channels, small on-farm mills with wooden tanks and channels; the whole range of good, bad, and ugly from a quality perspective, but absolutely fascinating and exciting from a human perspective. I was fed wild animals that don’t have English names, saw more butterflies than I’ve ever seen before, and met farmer after farmer excited to know that there is a market for their great coffee that will reward the extra work required to produce it with prices that more than justify the extra labor.

Before returning to La Paz on last morning in Caranavi we cupped another few tables of coffee. Again, a lot of coffee that you wouldn’t travel the world for, but a couple that really shone. Atlas has contracted the help of an outstanding young Bolivian cupper, Noemi Apaza, and the three of us left that last cupping clear about what we didn’t want, and more importantly, what we want—both what the taste profile should be, and also, which farmers within the two cooperatives seem to have a handle on how to produce the quality we’re looking for.

Because the harvest is still underway, we’re waiting for the full array of samples available to us. Noemi is preparing a bulk shipment of somewhere between 30 and 50 of the best samples, and from those we’ll be making our selections and arranging our shipment.

I look forward to posting again as we solidify our purchases, and even more so, to the arrival of these fine coffees sometime towards the end of November.

Check out the gallery below for a sense of where this great coffee is coming from.



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